France still in thrall to the rebel spirit of May '68

Forty years after the protests of 1968, most French people say they would have been on the side of the students and strikers - …

Forty years after the protests of 1968, most French people say they would have been on the side of the students and strikers - but the legacy of the student revolution is still the subject of lively debate Lara MarloweParis Correspondent reports

THE STUDENT REVOLUTION of May 1968 is an integral part of modern France's self-image. In a recent opinion poll, French people ranked the six-week crisis as more important than the Algerian War, the end of the Cold War, or the 1981 election of the socialist president François Mitterrand.

Two days before he was elected last year, President Nicolas Sarkozy promised "to liquidate the heritage of May '68", which he claimed obscured "the difference between good and evil, between truth and falsehood, between beauty and ugliness". That fatal month of May had instilled "hatred of the family, society, the State, the nation, the Republic", Sarkozy said. Oddly for a politician who enjoys luxury holidays paid for by billionaire friends, Sarkozy also accused May '68 of imposing "the cult of money as king, of short-term profit and speculation". For once, Sarkozy appears to have misjudged the electorate. In a poll published by Le Nouvel Observateurnews magazine, 77 per cent of French people said they would have been "on the side of the students and strikers" in May '68. In the age group most critical of the revolt, those over 65, two-thirds said they'd have sided with the rioters.

Though France is prone to disputes over her own history, she celebrates the 40th anniversary of May '68 with an enthusiasm approaching consensus. More than 80 books have been published, and countless magazine covers, television documentaries and symposiums are devoted to the crisis. Sarkozy no longer talks about it.

"Culturally . . . in terms of the concept of freedom and individual autonomy, we won," the former student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit writes in his new book, Forget 68. Cohn-Bendit wants the French to stop living in the past, to forget their petty left-right quarrels and address more serious issues such as globalisation and saving the planet.

Though he was born in France of German Jewish parents, Cohn-Bendit holds German nationality. When the 23-year-old sociology student emerged as the most articulate spokesman for the student rebellion, conservative French newspapers noted that the chief trouble-maker was a German Jew. "Dany le rouge" was briefly deported during the rebellion, before he snuck back into France with his hair dyed. Tens of thousands of students protested, chanting, "We are all German Jews".

Cohn-Bendit says the French did him a favour by expelling him to Germany after the events, because such early celebrity would have destroyed him. Today he co-chairs the Green group in the European parliament, where he is one of the most inspired and inspiring advocates of European integration: "Europe still makes me dream," he explains.

French society was extremely conservative when the May revolution started. Until 1965, a French woman would have needed her husband's signature to open a bank account. Trade union activity was banned in the workplace. Contraception became legal in 1967. When the student revolt started over male access to female dormitories, social change was perhaps already under way in France, but it was dramatically accelerated by the rebellion.

THE LEGACY THAT Sarkozy vowed to "liquidate" is cherished by a majority of French people. Eighty per cent of those surveyed by Le Nouvel Observateurbelieve it had a positive effect on the status of women. Watching the grainy, black-and-white newsreels of the period, it is striking how small a role women played. Though female students participated in the marches, one sees no women student leaders, no women in meetings among government ministers and trade unionists, no women television or radio journalists.

In the same study, 73 per cent of French people said May '68 improved the lot of trade unionists; 72 per cent praised its positive effect on French sexuality; 64 per cent said parent-children relationships were better thereafter.

In the intervening years, Cohn-Bendit has become one of the most astute observers of French national character. In Forget 68, he recounts how a French woman came up to him at a rally for the European Constitutional Treaty in 2005.

"Dany," she said, "You're probably right about the text, but I have an existential need to vote No." "That is France," Cohn-Bendit writes. "France is permanently in an existential crisis, for better or worse. Existential crisis about Resistance or collaboration, about men or women, about left or right." May '68, he surmises, was "one of the forms of eruption of this existential crisis".

French society is allergic to change, Cohn-Bendit says. "Forty years later, we still haven't found the key to the political modernisation of France. Each time, we fall back into the old French structure. After '68, we found royalist modernism, embodied by Giscard . . . The Mitterrand years were left-wing royalism. And today, we've got a Gaullo-Bonapartist Berlusconian who maintains the hierarchy." May '68 was the latest in a series of French revolutions stretching over more than two centuries. Had Sarkozy expressed himself better, I suspect he might have said that France must learn to change in a more gradual, less violent fashion; that it must break the endlessly repeated cycle of an arrogant, rigid establishment succumbing in extremis to the power of the street. In France, the idea of an Irish- or German-style social partnership is unthinkable. Society acts not by consensus but as dictated by rapports de force(balance of power). The next confrontation is never far away.

Forty years ago, French students and riot police repeatedly fought overnight battles in the Latin Quarter. The students made barricades from the iron grates at the base of trees. Against a back-drop of blazing cars, they hurled paving stones at riot police, who in turn fired tear gas grenades and beat protesters with night-sticks.

Prime minister Georges Pompidou gave in early to the students' three demands: that universities be re-opened, that detained students be freed, and that the police withdraw from the area. But feeling their own strength, the students then demanded an end to the selection process for university places, and an end to examinations. They achieved the unlikely goal of rallying factory workers to their rebellion. By mid-May, the country ceased to function. The CIA reported to the US president Lyndon Johnson that France was on the verge of civil war. On May 27th, after 30 hours of negotiations with trade unions, Pompidou announced the Grenelle accords, in which the government gave in to strikers' demands. The minimum wage was raised 10 per cent, the working week reduced to 40 hours and retirement lowered to age 60.

A semblance of normality returned from mid-June. On the eve of elections in which the right won nearly three-quarters of all seats in the National Assembly, president Charles de Gaulle made the last of three televised speeches regarding the crisis. "Last month, everything was slipping away," he said. "Our country, scandalised, paralysed, disoriented, thought the Republic was disappearing, when at last the national instinct awoke. The evil charm that was dragging us towards the abyss was broken. All was repaired; voilà the page that has just been inscribed in the tormented book of our history."

It may be a sign that France is at last shedding self-obsession that in celebrations of the 40th anniversary, unprecedented attention is paid to what was happening in the wider world. The Vietnam war, along with sexual liberation, was the main cause of student revolutionaries. Now memories of the anti-war movement, and of similar demonstrations in Germany, Poland, Spain, Italy, the US, Mexico, Brazil and Japan have come to the fore.

AS HIS CONTRIBUTION to the commemorations, the film-maker Patrick Rotman has made a documentary about Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and the crushing of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. "For me, 1968 was a tragic year," Rotman explains. "Funny, sympathiquemoments existed, especially in France, but they hid the tragic dimension."

Paris may have epitomised the protest movement, but the French now recognise they did not invent it. In Ireland, some 100 Maoist students held endless meetings, like their comrades in Paris, at Trinity College Dublin. Gardaí staged a baton charge at a demonstration against the visiting king and queen of Belgium. "We were all sort of infected with it," recalls a man who has since become a pillar of the Dublin establishment. "It was a craze, a fashion. You didn't dare question it."

PARIS 1968
March 22nd
Protests break out at Nanterre University. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, then 23, emerges as the charismatic leader of the Movement of March 22.

May 3rd, 6th, 10th, 24th and June 10thPolice fight battles with students who set up barricades in the Latin Quarter. More than 1,000 students are arrested; nearly 1,000 students and police are injured. A police commissioner is killed in Lyon, and two students die in further incidents.

May 6th-15thProtests spread to universities across France. Students occupy the Sorbonne and the Odéon National Theatre. Workers and lycée students join the rebellion. The Renault and Sud-Aviation factories are occupied.

From May 16thAir traffic, metros and trains stop. Telephone communications, the distribution of newspapers and petrol are disrupted. Supermarkets are full of people stocking up on food.

By May 20th, 10 million workers are on strike and the country is paralysed.

May 24thPresident Charles de Gaulle's responds to the riots, saying, "Reform yes; la chienlit [ havoc], non." Demonstrators coin a new slogan: "La chienlit, c'est lui."

May 29thGen Gaulle secretly flies to Germany to consult his old friend Gen Jacques Massu. The next day, de Gaulle dissolves the National Assembly. Nearly one million Gaullist supporters march from Place de la Concorde to the Étoile.

June 30thDe Gaulle's right-wing coalition wins 358 of 485 seats in the National Assembly, the first absolute majority in French history.